by Giuliana Miglierini
The divergent road opened as a consequence of the Brexit, in January 2021, between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) is now converging again as for the possibility for UK researchers to participate to Horizon Europe (HE) and Copernicus scientific programmes. The agreement in principle reached on 7 September 2023 by the European Commission and the UK Government was facilitated by the previous Windsor Framework Agreement. It shall now be ratified by the Council of the European Union, and then adopted by the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes.
“The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”, said the Presi-dent of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
The possible association of the UK to Horizon Europe animated a vigorous debate in the past couple of years among the scientific international community, as well as that of other third countries such as Switzerland (those association is still pending, see below).
The current agreements in place between the UK and the EU are not comprehensive of the participation of UK’s students to the Erasmus+ programme, participation that was cancelled by the UK government in 2020.
The financial terms of the agreement
The new association of UK to both HE and Copernicus programmes will become operative star-ting 1 January 2024, superseding the previous transitional agreement that allowed UK researchers to apply and be evaluated as other potential beneficiaries under HE calls. It will become possible for UK researcher to access HE’s 2024 Funding Programme and Work Programme (including the coordination of consortia), and to participate in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.
According to the European Commission, the estimated annual contribution of the UK to Horizon Europe and the Copernicus component of the Space programme should be on average €2.6 billion, in line with the terms agreed in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The EU Commission will issue twice a year a call for funds to the UK corresponding to the due contribution. The overall EU budget for Horizon Europe is €95.5 billion, plus contributions due by the various associated countries.
The agreement is also comprehensive of a correction mechanism referred to Horizon Europe, aimed to compensate the contribution of the UK, should its receipts in grants be higher than its contribution for grants. Under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, an automatic correction to the UK’s contribution would occur if it reached a threshold of 8% over two successive years. A balance mechanism has also been put in place to compensate for the UK receiving significantly fewer grants than its contribution. In this instance, the level of UK participation may be improved, or (should it overpays by more than 12%), the issue may be object to scrutiny by the joint Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes to agree upon the measures needed to balance the situation.
A temporary and automatic mechanism has been also agreed to address any risk of critical underperformance by the UK should the imbalance exceed 16%, based on the consideration the country did not fully participate in HE in the past two years.
The main fields of collaboration
UK’s participation to European research programmes will focus on area of mutual interest, i.e. emerging technologies, climate change and health. The participation to strategic parts of Horizon Europe – including those related to strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security – is subject to the previous assessment of UK participants on equal terms with other associated countries (Art. 22(5) of the Horizon Europe Regulation). The participation to other parts of HE will occur on equal terms with researchers and organisations from EU Member States.
Copernicus is part of the European space programme. The association will allow the UK to access a state-of-the art capacity to monitor the Earth and its services. Among the main goals of the programme is the understanding and acting on environmental and climate change related challenges. The UK will also have access to EU Space Surveillance and Tracking services.
The announcement of the agreement on the association of the UK to European research pro-grammes found very positive reactions among the different parties interested in solving the issue.
“Joining the Horizon Europe programme is a huge win for the scientific research community, who have been pushing for resolution over the past few years. UK innovation and research de-pends on international collaborations which are crucial for driving advancements in all areas of science, including the discovery and early development of new medicines and vaccines”, said Janet Valentine, ABPI Executive Director, Innovation and Research Policy. “The UK accession to Horizon enables the two sides to reinvigorate their longstanding partnership in R&D, and directly contributes to UK growth and competitiveness in the life sciences sector by making the UK an attractive destination for talented researchers.”
“This decision represents a long-awaited signal for renewed international collaboration on fundamental frontier research in Europe. It will strengthen the research of all involved, both in the EU and in the UK. At the ERC, we look forward to welcoming back researchers based in the UK, after the trying last few years. They have been sorely missed, and will now be able to participate again as from our 2024 grant competitions”, said the President of the ERC, Maria Leptin.
The academic world represented by Cesaer highlighted the reintegration of UK into Horizon Eu-rope and Copernicus reaffirms the commitment of both the EU and the UK to advancing global scientific excellence. The association of the European universities of science and technology also supports further progress in building a wider international scientific community, with particular reference to Switzerland.
“Today, Europe’s universities celebrate the end of a long road that began in 2016 and look for-ward to rebuilding and further developing close partnerships” said Josep M. Garrell, President of the European Universities Association.
“We are extremely grateful for the efforts of everyone in the European research community who has worked tirelessly to help secure this agreement”, added Jamie Arrowsmith, Director of Universities UK International.
Switzerland is still waiting for the association
Despite Switzerland being a very important country for research in life sciences, and location of many of the major pharmaceutical industries, the country is still waiting to restart the negotiations with the EU for its association to the European research programmes. The exclusion of Switzerland from any form of collaboration was the result, in 2021, of the political divergence with the EU on many issues.
“We feel alone in the middle of Europe,” Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva, told Business|Europe.
According to the article by David Matthews, the incumbent Swiss federal elections in October 2023 and the European elections of 2024 may slow down the negotiations on the new political relationship. The association of Switzerland to EU’s research programmes might then not occur before 2025. Some explanatory talks would be already ongoing, adds the article. Sympathy for researchers in Switzerland was expressed by the ERC President, Maria Leptin. “They are not alone in the sense they are loved by all the rest of us,” she said. “There is very high-level research being done in Switzerland, same as in the UK. We all want to be one group that competes at the same level and is evaluated by the same high-level panels.”